Is Mean Really What It Takes?

I’m a Gleek, a fan of the television show Glee.  It first aired in 2009 and although I fell off as a spectator last year, I’ve picked up the habit again for Season 4.   

Britney 2.0, the most recent episode, aired last Thursday. Incorporating music by Britney Spears, for the second time in the show’s history, and tracing the development of a key character, the episode also alluded to the real life trauma, the very real events in the public roller coaster ride of Ms. Spears’s celebrity existence. 

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Another story line this year follows Rachel who has moved to New York to attend a prestigious performing arts academy in the Big Apple.

Rachel’s dance teacher is Cassandra July, played brilliantly by actor Kate Hudson.  With a predictable coulda-been-a-star background, Cassandra’s teaching style is abrasive and vindictive.  To move the plot along, as you might expect, her scapegoat is Rachel, the young woman from the small town with the big dreams of making it on Broadway.

At one point in the Britney 2.0 episode, Cassandra says, “I pick on my students because I want them to be ready for that.” That being the difficult and rejection-filled life of being a musical theatre professional.

The show reflects the mindset that what doesn’t break you makes you stronger.  I find this sentiment abhorrent.


Because it justifies meanness.  It rationalizes the abuse of power.  It embodies a stereotype of the cruel authority figure whose behaviour is sanctioned as being for one’s own good.

There may be individuals who thrive under such a system and there are those who are motivated by an I’ll-show-’em bravado.  Most of us, I conjecture, wilt if we’re starved of encouragement and trampled under the weight of another person’s ego. 

Many of us likely carry such hurts already.

Being mean is not the same as being constructive.  Being mean is often destructive.  And there can be nothing worse than when that meanness comes from those whom we admire whether our parents, our siblings, our family members, our friends, our colleagues, our coaches, our mentors, or our teachers.

Education is not coercion nor compulsion.  Learning does not come about when you harp on weaknesses or failures or transgressions.

While I obviously cannot say how the season of Glee will unfold, I’ve watched enough American television and enough American films to predict that at some point Rachel will thank Cassandra July for challenging her, for being so mean.  

Rachel will acknowledge that Cassandra made her dig deep, overcome crushing criticism — if not outright belittlement– and helped her take those crucial steps along that yellow brick road to making her dreams come true. 

This portrayal perpetuates a stereotype of what it takes to be successful, but even more damaging in my mind is the stereotype it perpetuates of the tough-love teacher. 

And that’s a stereotype it’s time for us to break even if it’s only on television.